Advertising, noise, silence, and the responsibility to make ourselves heard

A hundred years ago, James Joyce made a newspaper ad salesman Leopold Bloom the central character of Ulysses, and the slogans and devices and well-worn tropes of advertising are a subtle theme through plenty of Joyce’s work.

But Joyce lived in an era where radio had just been invented, where moving pictures were only beginning to gain traction (indeed, he opened Ireland’s first cinema, the Volta, in 1909), where there was no television, no Internet, no social media, no culture of relentless and incessant interpersonal and brand-to-target-audience messaging.

What would he have made of today?

We live in a world that is distracted and noisy at an unprecedented level.

A report in 2017 estimated that Americans are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertising messages every single day.

Is it any wonder that our brains are so addled from all the mental sorting we need to do, at an unconscious level, to engage with, ignore or compartmentalize all those messages in a meaningful way?

Is it any wonder that so many of us are overwhelmed, overcome with a yearning to switch off, escape, experience the release of yoga stretches or meditation or a beach overlooking the ocean at sunset?

Most of us are trying to sell something.

We’re trying to sell something, because it helps our status at the company watercooler conversation or quarterly meeting.

We’re trying to sell something, because it makes us feel useful, and being useful makes us valuable, and being valuable gives us an income which keeps us warm and dry and safe and loved. (At the bottom of it all, we mostly want to be warm and dry and safe and loved.)

Most of us also are trying to avoid being sold to.

We’re trying to avoid being sold to because being sold to can expose us to feelings of being fooled, because all of us at some point have had our desires or lack of knowledge exploited by an unscrupulous salesperson.

We’re trying to avoid being sold to, because that experience, the experience of being fooled, erodes our self-respect, so the occasion of being sold to can unearth feelings of self-loathing.

When most of us are trying to sell something at the same time as we’re trying to avoid being sold to, it creates a world of noise and friction.

With so much noise besetting almost all of us, almost every minute of every day, it’s tempting to do anything but add to the noise.

With so much noise, it’s tempting to make our default response to keep quiet.

But what happens when we have something to say? Something important? Something that can make a change that people need? A change that really can make the world, or whatever small part of it that we can influence, a better place?

Our only viable option is the long game. The long game requires us to strike a fine balance.

To be careful about adding to the noise, but to speak up — wholeheartedly, with humility and integrity — when what’s most needed is someone to speak up.

(** This post, like all these posts, was written primarily for me. It’s a result of my own struggle with the world. The massive reluctance to add to the noise that besets us all versus the need to speak up about something that needs people to speak up: the challenge of being in the modern world. That is what my whole Life Well Lived project is all about. Navigating the challenges of the world, becoming our best selves and ultimately living in a way that day by day adds up to a life well lived, one of contribution, fulfilment and happiness. Thank you for being here. I hope my contributions offer something of value, and an escape from the noise. **)